There can’t be too many books where the footnotes are more entertaining than the text. Who would’ve known that cockroaches are related to lobsters – although not as closely as humans are to rats, apparently? There are other embellishments as well – hand drawn maps, intriguing black and white photos sprinkled throughout the pages, and cute chapter headings such as ‘In which the Author tries to break into jail, falls into a manhole and encounters several tiny terrorists’.
In amongst all this lies the text. It ambles along at an unhurried pace, looping its way around Delhi, sharing tidbits. The author drops in on both the obvious and the unfamiliar, from the Jantar Mantar to the Red Fort to hospitals to slaughterhouses, retelling stories and building little vignettes. The book starts at Connaught Place and makes its way, via pretty much everything else in Delhi, to Gurgaon.
Sam Miller is a British journalist who’s spent plenty of time in the capital. Taking his cue from psychogeography, a discipline that traces urban patterns by walking, he decides to tramp his way around Delhi – a quixotic undertaking, as anyone who’s spent five minutes there knows. Borrowing a technique from the writer Iain Sinclair, who once walked East London on a route shaped like the letter V, Miller decides he will follow a pattern that’s a bit more inclusive, and opts for a spiral. And so he whirls like a slow motion dervish, out from Connaught Place into a city as well known for its multiple roundabouts as for its multilayered history. As he covers Pahar Ganj, the Jantar Mantar and obscure relics such as Campa Cola House, Delhi comes across as a giant junk shop, cluttered with trash and treasure collected over centuries, the pace of accumulation accelerating exponentially during the last 60 years. To explore it requires a determined obliviousness to one’s own health, a high tolerance for heat and dust and the willingness to fall into the occasional sewer.
One of the treasures is the Agarsen Baoli, a 700-year-old step well that is central Delhi’s oldest building. The arched stone structure plunges into the earth as the nearby high rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road reach for the sky, and Miller encounters the caretaker, a cigarette-smoking, grey haired man who featured in a famous photograph of the well taken by Raghu Rai in 1976. In the intervening years the water level in the Baoli has dropped 20 feet, the groundwater table plummeting as Delhi has expanded upwards and outwards.
The author wanders on, having brief encounters with Seventh Day Adventists, slum dwellers, railway clerks partying on in a parked carriage, pinhole photographers with streetside studios, a foul-mouthed British Indian stranded in traffic, the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery near Khan market, a man hauling a cart full of cows’ ears, and the somnolent attendant of the Tihar Jail gift shop, to name a few. It should be riotous.
Instead the writing is curiously monotone, with uniform half-page paragraphs from start to finish, and barely a modulation in sight. Dialogue comes and goes, but mostly the voice is first person singular. Perhaps Miller is conveying the receptive, meditative state that prolonged walking induces, or perhaps he’s refusing to take the work of the psychogeographers – also known as flaneurs – too seriously. Whatever the intention, it does little to convey Delhi as the seething leviathan that we all know it to be, the cartwheel of bright colours, dank smells, shrieks, honks and – well, everything.
The problem with extended walking is that the process becomes the priority. Covering a large distance on foot takes stamina, a psychological commitment that doesn’t leave room for much else. The encounters that Miller describes are brief, though often revealing – police beating up a drug dealer in Chandni Chowk, or his negotiations with leering bureaucrats questioning him about his marriage to an Indian. You just wish they were longer, more indepth, more richly described. In Pahar Ganj he bumps into an Israeli backpacker. She does not speak English, so they have an almost wordless exchange before he shuffles back up to CP.
It’s better to think of this as a guidebook than a bedtime read. It’s a book to tuck in your backpack as you explore Delhi, reaching for it when flummoxed by a scrubby field or a reeking slum. The meaning that Miller is able to extract from such places belies the repetitive register of the narration. Aided by the dinky sketch maps and the plodding prose, there is a world out there to be discovered, an agglomeration of silent ruins, slick shopping malls, crematoria, palaces, prisons, temples, parks and, er, uncovered manholes.
Not only is this a city for the coming century, but there is company to be had wherever you wander. Miller meets Brahma Kumaris intent on losing their attachments, a sexagenarian swooning over Nehru’s photo in Teen Murti House, a rag picker in the Ghaziabad dump. The result is a sweeping panorama made up of thousands of tiny details. The interest is not so much in the details themselves, as in their relationship to each other – the slums surrounding the enclave of Vasant Vihar for example, whose inhabitants are the domestic servants for the wealthy Indians and coddled expats of the colony. As Miller points out, if you insist on gliding about the city in an airconditioned SUV, you would never know they were there.